Botany for Non-Majors

by Chris Yamashita

Botany_Non_MajorsOrchid species of the Ophrys genus are noted for a process called pseudocopulation, or sexual deception, which completes their reproductive cycle. In sexual deception, the blossom looks so like an insect that the male of the species tries to mate with it, eventually flying away confused and covered in pollen, only to be deceived again.

I was in Plant Biology, I took meticulous notes, it was freshman year. Philip, my ex-roommate, sat two rows down, his meat-red hair a few shades lighter than the face of the orchid on the screen. He wrestled for the school and certainly fit the stereotype: gigantic, fetid, perpetually sweatpants-clad. When he casually referred to someone in our dorm as a “fag,” I said nothing. When he said he didn’t mind gay guys as long as they didn’t come on to him, I inventoried all of our previous interactions. I rubbed grooves in my mind obsessing over whether he could somehow tell, and so I was relieved when he’d rushed Sigma Chi and moved out.

The room was my own. The time was right to begin my first romantic relationship, and I’d specifically selected a large research university for its many choices. I experienced no anxiety; a relationship was easy to imagine, and I figured that, having watched amorous boys and girls experiment in high school, I would easily fall into the rhythm of a relationship. I’d already built a house in my mind, a place in which to rehearse an elegant future. Picture windows overlooked the sea. Blond wood gleamed in the kitchen. He liked to cook, I sat at a bar counter in the fading light. Were there children? It depended.

Virtually every attractive man I came across entered my house: short or tall, muscular or skinny, intellectual or philistine. Let’s say an attractive man and his golden retriever strolled by my table at an outdoor café. Well, there would be a dog romping in our fenced backyard. He’d wear a golf shirt, and a set of clubs appeared in the foyer, and I’d nag him to put his golf shoes away. That was the kind of thing I thought about at night, in my room with its extra bed.

It was fortuitous, it was kismet: I was distracted that day because I’d just met Beckett; he’d asked to borrow a pencil. I’d seen him before, in the dorms, but now we were talking. Now I knew his name.

Beckett had many attractive qualities. His hair was mussed in a way that I could never quite achieve. His pectorals were visible – but not straining – beneath his shirt. He stood at a civilized height. A whiff of cinnamon and car exhaust teased the air between us. He sat a seat away, crossed his hairy calf over a knee and wiggled a loose flip-flop in my direction.

It would have been easy, so easy, to install him in my house, but for some reason, I suspected this one was special, like he illuminated for me a life of forking paths, and that I would be led down the one I was meant to walk. He would not be allowed into my house, not yet, not until he professed some romantic interest. No, he would have to stand on the verge with that messenger bag and that leather cord bracelet and those many curled hairs on his arm.

At the end of lecture, I got my pencil back. He said, “Thanks, man,” his voice a dusky summer sunset. Back in my room, I sniffed the pencil hopefully, though it smelled as all pencils do.

On the next day of class, he strolled the eager aisle below, and for a long second I was sure he wouldn’t acknowledge me. I thanked myself for not letting him into my house, for saving myself the grief.

But then he turned, his eyes touched my face and he smiled at me, he smiled. What decision could be easier? I let him in, threw open my doors, let him run the corridors, knock down lamps and rip pillows into feathered constellations, I would clean up, he could do what he wanted. Plumes of his scent flayed the air.

He sat without a word. We spent a period of two weeks in desperate silence. Every encounter was exhausting. Hours of sleep were lost over his face, its sharp, conventional features, the face of a Penney’s newspaper ad.

Olivia, who lived down the hall, recommended that I strike up another conversation. “What have you got to lose?” she asked. Margot, from high school, was overjoyed. “Send me a picture!” she sang through the phone. “Oh, I bet he’s so cute. Don’t be afraid. You’re not going to get anywhere by being shy.”

I rubbed my temples. “What if he’s not gay?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Margot said. “It’s always flattering when someone thinks you’re cute.”

I stared at Philip’s bed. “Always?”

A pen tapped in the background. She quickly conceded. “Now are you going to ask me about my life?”

I next ran into Beckett on a quiet Saturday. By then he’d pruned the creeping wisteria in the garden and mown the grass, the sweat on his strong arms reflecting the sun. He pointed right at me: “Plant Biology?”

“Want to study for the midterm?” I asked. The day became honey-colored and heady. The world seemed to sigh. Our initial study session inspired a jocular friendship, which bloomed at its center a rhythm of what I could only understand as sexual tension. An accidental touch became a phone call late at night asking a question that could have waited.

It was an unseasonably hot October—of course it was. Beckett and I lay in the grass with our purple textbooks. I’d asked him a question and he’d answered, then made a joke. I laughed and put my hand on his, an endlessly rehearsed motion. The tendons twitched, he stared. He looked at our hands. And then a smile pulled up and out across his face.

He didn’t move. He didn’t move! Ecstasy for the rest of the afternoon. This is what it felt like, finally, after eighteen years of waiting, after watching all of my friends.

That night, we ate dinner with a group of acquaintances in the dining hall. I couldn’t think of what to eat, so I made myself a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, bit into the crisp whiteness.

Beckett mentioned an ex-girlfriend. The cream cheese became glue.

But it didn’t mean anything, said Margot, later. It was a tossed-off comment. It was manufactured, a lie, he was trying to fit in, hadn’t I said exactly the same things when I felt uncomfortable? There were many explanations, Olivia simply said. And there was a gay guy in Ryerson Hall, if things fell through.

There was no air conditioning in my room, and although the sun had set, the air pressed down on my chest and shoulders. I couldn’t get comfortable. Bits of cream cheese itched between my teeth. I read the same page in my textbook over and over. Minutes were viscous. What had happened to me? Was Beckett an orchid and I a bee, crazed by desire? It was a piece of hard candy in my mind, turning as I wandered the echoing chambers of my house.

When I heard the knock at the door, I knew who it was. I readied a neutral expression and opened.

But it was Olivia, who pushed past me and sat down on Philip’s bed. “I have to talk to you. Jack is driving me up the wall,” she said. Jack wanted to go to a concert that weekend, but she hadn’t wanted to go, and they’d gotten into a fight because he was going with his brother and had already bought tickets and his brother really made Jack crazy, Jack always had this insane desire to try to impress him. And then Jack said they might as well break up, and then, when she came home and checked Facebook, there was a post with him and another girl at a party last weekend, and she’d just had it.

All I could think about was the previous weekend, eating lunch with them in the dining hall, the way that Jack absentmindedly reached for her hand and cradled it for a few seconds. A simple action, but the amount of time, the worry, the energy that went into it!

Hours and hours passed. “What should I do?” she asked. I didn’t know. Before long, though, Olivia was hugging me and crying. Apparently I’d solved her dilemma, though I’d no idea how. What kind of home were Olivia and Jack building?

Then Margot called. A boy named Penn was sending mixed signals. And there was another guy, Alex, who was still in the picture. I couldn’t remember her talking about Alex. What should she do? She wished she could just date me. Things were so much simpler in high school.

My ear ached. It was so damn hot. I had no advice, I was dry. I used to give it away with so much confidence (if only I could be immersed in a confusing romantic experience, I used to think). Now every action had a thousand possible failures.

If only I were an orchid. Does an orchid understand its powers? Surely it doesn’t think it is clever – it does not try to deceive at all. It has no brain, it doesn’t think, and yet it survives and procreates. Happiness does not occur to it.

“You’re not listening, Tim,” Margot said. But she was right: it wasn’t like high school anymore. We’d sat together every day, took nearly every class together, and now we were across the country. “I’m sorry, M,” I said, “I’m just tired. Olivia was in here earlier talking about Jack.”

“Fine,” Margot said, hanging up.

Later, Olivia sent me an extensive, apologetic email. “I feel like I’m friends with so many gay guys!” she exclaimed at the end. “I just attract them!”

The Plant Biology midterm didn’t go well. Beckett sat a few rows down, looking nervous, not acknowledging me, and I’d even tried, despite my exhaustion, to get my hair looking right. I raced through the exam and left.

My house aged. The wisteria, having been neglected, threw its tendrils through panes of glass, gripped the carpentry so firmly that the beams flexed under the pressure. I asked Beckett why he no longer pruned, but he didn’t respond, looked right through me. The sun fell away and all around, the house’s lights extinguished, save one, one that shone down on Beckett like a spotlight. Now I realized he was naked, naked and smiling. He could be anything – a sack of flour, an alarm clock, a salt flat.

The knock at my door was certainly Olivia’s, but it was Beckett who barged in, uninvited, and lay down on my bed. “That was a terrible fucking midterm,” he said. I looked at him in amazement. “Can you believe it’s for non-majors? It’s way too hard.”

We talked like this, me at my desk chair, him on my bed, for hours into the night. I couldn’t help but stare, just stare at his face, its effortless hills and valleys. Such perfection couldn’t be natural. He hopped off the bed and left, came back with two ice cream bars and two bottles of water from the convenience store, got chocolate on his face, went to his room, changed into athletic shorts and a tank-top, loaded a mix CD on my laptop and toggled to his favorite song, his hand on the back of my chair as we watched the queue of songs. He laughed and talked to me in the low light of my desk lamp and the sound of my fan.

A knock. Olivia. She buried her face in my shoulder. “He dumped me,” she wailed. Hot tears seeped through my shirt. “The bastard dumped me.”

Over her shoulder, Beckett grinned. It was the same expression, though – the grin never changed. It was neither embarrassed nor conspiratorial. Was it just the way his mouth looked – his resting face?

Olivia sniffed and looked up at me, sensing something had changed. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was someone here.”

“Beckett,” he said. That same grin.

A tendril of pink charged up her neck. “Oh, oh!” She wailed again. “You’re – you’re both –”
“This is Olivia,” I said.

“I see,” Beckett said, but didn’t leave. Olivia pressed inside. Beckett told a harmless joke. They criticized my blank walls. Soon, she sat on the bed next to him, so close they almost touched. My back hurt, my cheeks ached from smiling. Olivia kept winking.

Then Margot called. I excused myself and eased into the hallway, shutting the door. “You know,” she said, without a greeting, “you’ve changed, Tim.” She slurred her words.

“I resent that,” I said, though I had little idea what she was talking about. But Margot had always been very emotional and she’d always relied on me. It’d been a mistake for her to go to college so far away.

“You used to be a good friend. You used to care,” she said. Obviously, Margot was conflating our distance and the inadequacy of the telephone for neglect. The only thing that’d changed about me was that I had a romantic life now.

“Oh, please. You’re drunk,” I told her, which caused her to wheeze-cry into the phone. I half-wished she could see me roll my eyes. She pinched off her crying and said, “I know you’re probably rolling your eyes right now.”

“I would never.”

She sighed. “I’m not that drunk.”

I looked at my door. How horrendously awkward must it be inside, Beckett and Olivia just sitting there, waiting.

“It’s just that you never ask about my life. You only want to talk about Beckett.”

I scuttled down the hall, mortified that he might’ve heard. “I do not,” I hissed.

“I just, Tim, I just – I try to act like I’m having a great time here, but to be honest, I’m really lonely. No one knows me, it’s exhausting.”

I picked at some peeling paint. A toilet flushed down the hall.

“Tim?”

“Yes?”

“You seem like you’re not homesick at all.”

Someone’s laughter popped like a balloon. I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, I concluded, I wasn’t homesick. Maybe initially, but now I had a boyfriend who was waiting for me in my room, sitting on my bed, right now. Look at what I’d achieved in a matter of months. “I miss you,” I offered.

“Sorry, I’m a mess,” Margot said, her voice sounding underwater. “I’ll let you go.” The phone clicked.

I walked back into my room. Olivia and Beckett sat cross-legged on my bed. They leaned toward each other, spoke in low voices.

I sat down in my chair and was about to explain Margot when I saw that Beckett’s hand was on Olivia’s thigh.

Neither moved. Their faces were impassive. A joke, surely. They were playing a joke on me. “Oh, Tim, no,” Olivia finally said, pulling her hand away. “It’s nothing. We were just talking about that asshole, Jack.” Beckett played with the seam of my bedspread, gummed his lips.

I didn’t think or I didn’t want to think. I surely didn’t think about my house. I didn’t think about anything.

Olivia wanted beer. Did I want beer? Olivia knew a guy on the third floor. Their voices, like Margot’s, were underwater. They both stood and smoothed their shirts. I wanted to laugh. Beckett looked at his phone. Olivia put her hand on my fallen shoulder, whispered, “Don’t freak, it was nothing.” Then she left.

I stared into my fan and let it dry the sweat on my face. Beckett moved around somewhere behind me, presumably toward the open door.

“Tim,” he said, using my name for the first time, “I know you’re into me.”

“No – ”

“To clear things up: I’m straight.”

The room was dark. It was so dark. Comically, ruefully dark. One lamp on? What was I thinking? I got up and turned on the overhead. The space was doused in fluorescence, and we both took a breath at the sudden shift.

Then he was standing very close to me. He smelled like oranges and peppermint. I kept breathing. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s OK, buddy.” Without moving his feet, he reached out and tipped the door shut.

An unbidden image: Margot, eating a white-bread turkey sandwich out of a Ziploc in our high school cafeteria. A brown miniscule carton of milk, rough-hewn carrots on a paper plate, a lake of ranch dressing, apples.

“We can still be friends,” Beckett said.

Then his lips were on mine, quiet, stationary, dry. He pulled away. My body did all sorts of things, gave me away. I wanted him and I was repulsed and humiliated. What I would give for another kiss; what I would give to have never met him.

Beckett smiled encouragingly. “You can blow me anytime,” he said, like he was offering me a ride to the airport. Then he walked out of my bedroom because he could.

I pictured future months dotted with lonely, alcohol-painted nights when all I would ever want was to crawl into his bed, put my chin on his chest and watch his pitying grin. I now had an option that I’d desperately wanted, a safe and important thicket I could burn for temporary warmth. What would it do to me?

The plant biology textbook lay open on my desk. “Vertical growth can be encouraged by excising lateral shoots,” it said. I flipped to another page. “The production of blossoms often requires immense energy stores.” Another page. “The insect finds the orchid, for all intents and purposes, functionally irresistible.” I shut the book. These were things I already knew.

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About Chris Yamashita

Chris Yamashita lives in Portland, OR, and teaches writing at Chemeketa Community College. He’s been published in Weave, won a DeFilippis-Rosselli Award for Writers of Color, and was named Semi-Finalist in Dzanc Books’ International Literature Awards. He holds an MFA from Oregon State University.

Chris Yamashita

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